NRL.com preview Wednesday night's State of Origin series opener to be played at Sydney's ANZ Stadium.
NSW VB Blues v Queensland XXXX Maroons
The Holden State of Origin beast just seems to keep getting bigger every year and in 2015, for the first time since 2006, it is the New South Welshmen who head in looking to retain the shield and the Queenslanders who are the challengers.
There was an outpouring of emotion from the Blues when the fulltime siren sounded in Game II last year, sealing their narrow, tense, incredibly hard-fought series win.
Second-year coach Laurie Daley had pulled off a masterstroke and the former Blues five-eighth refuses to rest on his laurels; with captain Paul Gallen (hip), key man Greg Bird (suspension) and 2014 co-player of the series, NFL-bound Jarryd Hayne (also the Blues most-capped player last year) already unavailable, Daley has nevertheless discarded a further 31 games of experience by overlooking Luke Lewis and Anthony Watmough.
While Watmough and his Eels have been down on form this year the non-selection of Lewis was more of a surprise, and was actually contributed to by Gallen's injury meaning Daley wanted two props on the bench to help cover Gallen's workload.
He has handed a debut to Bulldogs giant David Klemmer on the bench and back-rower Josh Jackson in the starting lock role, recalling in-form tackle-buster Andrew Fifita and Roosters halfback Mitchell Pearce as a five-eighth in place of Josh Reynolds, with Pearce to line up alongside last year's halfback Trent Hodkinson.
Josh Dugan takes over from Jarryd Hayne at the back with Josh Morris fit again and able to take his place in the centres, and Eels centre Will Hopoate taking the contended wing spot ahead of Kangaroos flanker Alex Johnston and Canberra fullback Jack Wighton.
Maroons coach Mal Meninga has largely stuck solid with the side that came roaring back last year to swamp the Blues in the Game III dead rubber. Matt Scott missed that one with injury while bench utility Daly Cherry-Evans will miss this one with injury while Ben Te'o (European rugby) and Josh Papalii (not selected) are the only others to have made way. The 18th and 19th men from that game, Josh McGuire and Michael Morgan, will make their Origin debuts to start this series off.
While the Blues had some early disruptions to their squad with Gallen and Bird being ruled out, it's been nothing but smooth sailing since the side was actually named. It has been the polar opposite for their opposition however; both centres, Greg Inglis and Justin Hodges, have hardly trained while fullback Billy Slater has had injury concerns and utility Daly Cherry-Evans was named and joined camp before being ruled out with an arm injury and replaced by Morgan.
Inglis in particular is of concern, having been hospitalised with a virus, while Hodges (cut foot) and Slater (shoulder) are not thought to be in doubt for Wednesday.
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Watch out NSW: Queensland built a dynasty on professional, relentless, close-to-perfect football. In fact, since 2004, when the bones of the all-conquering outfit were making their way into the Origin arena in the form of Johnathan Thurston, Cameron Smith and Billy Slater, the Maroons have absolutely lapped the Blues when it comes to mistake-free footy. In terms of best completion rates across a series in those 11 years, the Queenslanders have the top three efforts, five of the top six and 10 of the top 13. Their best effort was 83.4 per cent of sets completed in their victorious 2013 campaign, and completed at over 80 per cent five times: 2005, 2007, 2011, 2013 and last year. Conversely the Blues have completed over 80 per cent just once in that time, 82.6 per cent in 2012.
With the potency of Queensland's backline and relentlessness of their forward pack they have been more than capable of capitalising on the possession their superior ball handling has given them.
Experience could also be a factor: the Maroons have used just five halves combinations since 2006 to the Blues 16 and have a total of 268 games experience compared to the Blues' 106.
Watch out Queensland: With a fairly greasy and heavy track expected at ANZ on Wednesday, the Blues have named a monster forward pack with a bench weighing in at around 44 kilograms heavier than that of their rivals.
Sticking to a game plan, they managed to win the grind in the opening two games last year and statistics indicate this has been the approach for the Blues over a long period, playing a far less expansive brand of football than their opponents over the past decade.
In the past three years, the Blues have passed from the hooker to an interchange player 218 times; for the Maroons it is just 125. Conversely the Queenslanders have passed from the hooker to the half or five eighth far more than the Blues, indicating NSW play a far more limited one-out style of footy relying on forward hit ups while Queensland have been more expansive. Given the expected conditions and the team NSW have picked, we can expect them to be doing their best to batter the Queenslanders and sap their strength.
Given this backdrop, could the Maroons' ageing roster be a factor? Their average age of 28.4 makes them the oldest side in Origin history while the Blues at 25.4 will have some fresher legs.
Key Match-Up: A lifetime of watching Origin tells us this one will be won, as always, in the forwards. But it can be lost anywhere so the key match up here is the two halves pairings. We just know that if the Maroons pack gets their side in range, Cooper Cronk and Johnathan Thurston have what it takes to capitalise. With no Jarryd Hayne, it will be up to Mitch Pearce and Trent Hodkinson to take advantage of any opportunities the side gets in good position. Their combined stats after 10 games (none of the four has missed a game yet in 2015) make interesting reading.
The Maroons playmakers have a slight 17-15 edge in try assists and 15-12 in line break assists. Their running game has been far superior, with a combined 221 runs to the Blues halves 144 and combined average 146 metres against 99 metres. They have a 25-16 advantage in tackle breaks and have scored four tries against one. They kick the ball more: 240 kicks in general play to the Blues halves 191. They handle the ball more with 1,143 receives to 937.
Keeping with the overall theme of how each side is expected to play, the Blues halves have the defensive edge with 417 made tackles to 324 with only one extra miss. Pearce's 18 offloads hand the Blues pair a 20-9 advantage in that stat while for what it's worth the Maroons playmakers have had more field goal practice this year, slotting five one-pointers against one (to Hodkinson) for the Blues.
The History: Played 102; NSW 46, QLD 54, Drawn 2. Despite Queensland's eight years of dominance there still isn't a huge gap in the overall figures. They have only outscored the Blues in terms of overall points by 1,675 to 1,570. They also haven't had a great deal of success at ANZ Stadium, having won just six of 21 games (with one draw) and one of their past five at the venue.
Match Officials: Gerard Sutton & Ben Cummins; touch judges: Nick Beashel & Brett Suttor; Video Referees: Bernard Sutton & Luke Patten.
Televised: Channel Nine, Live, 7.30pm
The Way We See It: As ever in Origin, this is incredibly tough to tip. The Blues' youth, size and enthusiasm versus the Maroons' incredible wealth of Origin experience and almost telepathic communication from so many games played together. The Blues will be looking to win it on defence while the Maroons will be hoping a clinical all-round game will crack the blue wall open. We're not reading too much into Queensland's supposedly disrupted preparation, but at home and with Laurie Daley again the master of his domain we'll tip the Blues to grab a low-scoring arm wrestle by two points.
The views expressed in this article are solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Melbourne Storm Rugby League Club.